18 September 2016

Review: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably closer to a 3.5/3.75.

I'm an admirer of Barry Goldwater. While most conservative and/or Republican people my age point to Reagan as the standard bearer and such, Goldwater was much more my speed. Both a product of his time and way ahead of his peers, Goldwater was the presidential candidate in 1964 who lost huge, but ushered in a conservative movement that has largely dominated the American political structure ever since.

This book tells the story of the Goldwater rise, starting from the era of Goldwater's rise to national prominence through the end of the 1964 contest. There is a lot of detail about the sociopolitical situation of the time as well as the explicitly political era from Joe McCarthy to the assassination of JFK. It's ridiculously detailed and provides a pretty strong narrative flow for such a dense history title.

Where this falters a bit is that Perlstein does come in with a bit of an axe to grind. From the subtitle, we understand where he's coming from on this and, while he's more fair than not throughout, there's a lot of incredulity in the text about Goldwater and how he was able to catch fire the way he did. While Perlman is not wrong to highlight a lot of the dysfunction in the campaign, too much of the book does focus on events otherwise unrelated to the time that better fit the Johnson/JFK narrative, and a lot of time is spent with an almost mocking eye toward many of Goldwater's supporters. Maybe the most frustrating parts are things that were known by the time of publication, such as Perlman's dismissal of Joe McCarthy without even recognizing some of the disclosures from the Venona cables. This sort of narrative nonfiction, which has a real Howard Zinn-like quality in many aspects, takes away from the harder history of the overall piece.

I nitpick because I know this era fairly well (although I'm far, far, FAR from an expert) and because this is a widely acclaimed book, with much of the acclaim missing the real problems. The real problems, however, do not overshadow how compelling and detailed a read this ends up being, and there's more than enough rigor here to make this a valuable asset in the overall canon of the political era. I do look forward to reading Perlman's other books, and I hope the other books improve on what's already a good piece of scholarship.

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